Begrudgingly Lies The Crown

By John Pricci,
Executive Editor

Call it equine heresy. And it's not the brain-child of a disgruntled, burnt-out racing writer. To the contrary. This is the world's best job: Free admission and parking. A view from the cat-bird's seat in any press box in America. An unfettered walk to the betting window and, have I mentioned, a free lunch?

So then why do I choose to watch War Emblem's Triple Crown bid from the Saratoga harness track instead of live at Belmont Park? Because for me it is a matter of respect for history; past, present and future.

If he or she were honest, any turf writer would tell you they feel compelled to root for "the big horse" no matter whose barn it's from. It's good for the game, the saying goes. It's good for how we earn a living while enjoying life as a racetracker/journalist. And wouldn't it be nice if a larger segment of the sports audience could appreciate the sport for the communication between man and animal: Horsemen walking the fine line between bending animals to their will and teaching the lessons needed all the while trying not to break their spirit. The best of racehorses have the talent, discipline and heart. They want to succeed just like everyone else.

War Emblem could be one of the rare ones, a horse of speed, spirit and power, one that comes along a handful of times in a racetracker's life. It was easy to love the great geldings; Kelso and Forego. But Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Ruffian were the greatest I have seen, Seattle Slew my personal favorite. So maybe that's why I won't be at Belmont Park on Saturday. It's too soon after Slew's death. I'm not ready to make that spiritual leap. And the reason why War Emblem can win this Saturday is that he seems to have some of that Slew "fire."

We know War Emblem has speed; know he has great spirit and heart. We know, like Slew and Ruffian, that he is a black horse in the Chinese Year of the Horse. But what we don't know yet is if he is one of the ones. His accomplished trainer thinks so. But then Bob Baffert has ordained many good horses great before their time. Saturday can help us know the answer. But it's still too soon, too soon after Slew's death, too soon because no one, myself included, has had sufficient time to wrap their arms around the idea that War Emblem might be a great horse.

And it's too close to September 11, in a "Sum of All Fears" kind of way. Anyone who tells you it's not disconcerting to root for a Saudi prince to win American racing's greatest prize after catching lightning in a $900,000 oil barrel is either black-hearted or a liar. And I've met no one at any racetrack, simulcast or backstretch since 6:11 p.m. on Preakness night who feels differently. It's not easy rooting for a prince who would claim to be as popular as a president.

While Baffert has influenced and impressed many along the way, he's not done so by winning barrels full of friends in the process, just respectful admirers. And professional jealously might be a part of all that. What he has won is barrels full of money for his owners and his family. He's a trainer on the short track to certain first-ballot Hall of Fame status. No one can deny him that. But excuse me if I'm not in attendance to witness, in victory, Baffert placing a replica of the Belmont trophy on his head. Been there. Seen that.

Maybe it's because if War Emblem wins immortality on Saturday he won't come here and do it all over again in the Travers. With nothing to prove, the trainer and the prince likely would choose the inflated-purse path of least resistance to the Breeders' Cup Classic. It's the smart thing to do and, as we know, Tessio was always smarter. But if there's no Saratoga in War Emblem's future history then I'm prepared to meet him only halfway. At a simulcast near me.

What I will miss is the magnificent Belmont Park paddock, the parade to the post, the live horserace. The electricity of a Triple Crown pre-race moment is as palpable as it gets before any American sports classic. I will miss the "Sidewalks of New York," east side, west side, and the south side, too soon after September 11. And I would not find a single New Yorker among the 90,000 spectators who doesn't somehow look for those towers every time he sees a movie because it is all too soon, still.

I will miss the colt most of all, seeing if his kind of fire that fights off all speed challengers, discourages finishers, and savages pull-up ponies for good measure is really for real. It's the kind of fire that translates only when up close and personal, a fire-breathing equine heat that excites and frightens all at once. Because he might be one of the ones.

Should War Emblem win this Saturday, I will celebrate the achievement and be grateful that whatever he does as the sport's newest and only living Triple Crown winner will be page one news. And I hope I'm wrong and that the trainer and the prince will show respect for history and bring their champion to racing's Mecca, Saratoga, while still in his Triple Crown season.

I will be 10-percent happy for Russell Reineman, a long-time patron of the sport who made a non-racing business decision and sold 90 percent of his Illinois Derby winner. Apparently he could use his $500,000 share of the Visa Triple Crown bonus. Of course, there is the matter of the other bonus, still out there, still in the courts.

And the game is better when "the big horse" is racing, no matter whose barn it's from.

I can think of one fitting Hallmark moment in this Triple Crown scenario: With his winning share of $4.5-million in hand, Prince Ahmed bin Salman calls off his lawyers and gives Reineman his rightful half of the Illinois/Kentucky Derby bonus whether or not Reineman was smart enough to put it on paper. There is no bonus without the race in Chicago. (To his credit, Baffert announced that he would split his fee with Illinois Derby-winning trainer Bobby Springer).

Should the prince decide to adhere to business principle and legally allow the bonus "to follow the horse" in a ninety-ten split, which is his right, maybe he could just give the $400,000 in question to the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's Heroes Fund for the living victims of September 11. Most reasonable fans might accept this token, however begrudgingly, just like they would accept War Emblem as America's 12th Triple Crown champion. And racetrackers will marvel and applaud. Only don't expect them to be happy about it. It is too soon, still.